(1) It is 2012. You follow your boss at a sales conference. Throughout her presentation – on marketing a new DVD of Oliver Stone’s JFK – she makes wildly erroneous statements, e.g. that Gerald Ford was JFK’s vice-president and that Ford escalated the war in Iraq. When it's your turn to talk,
a. You make no reference to your boss’s flubs.
b. You say she is famous for her dry, deadpan humor.
c. You take a chance and say “see what I have to put up with?”
d. Same as c. but you say it in French.
e. You deftly change the subject by talking about Henry Ford and the problems Detroit is having competing with Japan and how ironic that is, etc.
(2) As you rush down the subway steps and onto the downtown platform, you are pushed by a woman, who fights her way onto the R train while you struggle to maintain your balance. Then as her train pulls out you notice she has dropped a cute little leather purse with five twenties folded inside. You
a. Don’t think twice, it’s all right.
b. Try to find the woman to return her purse and show her what a superior human being you are.
c. Regard the money as insult added to injury, utter a delicate profanity about the bitch, then dump the cash on a bottle of vintage champagne.
d. Imagine the woman as the protagonist of your new novel.
e. Look around in a world-weary way as if you were the protagonist of a black-and-white 1940s British movie like Brief Encounter.
Saturday April 21, 2012, 3:30-5:30 PM: Poetry & Cocktails To celebrate National you-know-what (hint: April), the acclaimed East Village restaurant Back 40 is once again hosting a poetry/cocktail slam, for which it has enlisted some of New York's most inventive chemists to create cocktails inspired by their favorite poetry. The great slam impresario, poet Bob Holman will raise each glass and conjure the poem that inspired its contents. We were there last year, we'll be there this year. For God's sake--hock and soda water!
For more information and to purchase tickets go here.
I just returned from the AWP conference in Chicago, where I participated in a panel discussion about this blog. It was great to see so many friendly and familiar faces in the audience and to meet and talk to others later. I certain came away with some great ideas and the energy to put them into practice.
We did a bit of reminiscing about favorite posts from the past four years. Even if you couldn't be there, you can have a taste of some of those that live on:
Is This Thing On? Can You Hear Me Now? by James Cummins (February 7, 2008)
Trochaic Theory Picks Obama by David Lehman (August 6, 2008)
Stuff, or "Clean up your room!" by Laura Orem (October 7, 2008)
Dogs and Poetry, by Richard Garcia (July 22, 2009)
Kouman Sa Ta Ye by Emma Trelles (January 23, 2010)
Sex in the Stacks: Porn and the Librarian by Stephanie Brown (May 20, 2010)
Caution: I've found that one post leads to another and before you know it, it's tomorrow.
Do you have any favorites? Let us know!
During a lecture many years ago, Donald Hall advised his students to look down a page of their prose and rewrite any paragraph that began with "I."
The other night during the KGB bar reading, Star Black told her audience that she banned "I" from her work for five years.
Later, while introducing Mark Ford, David Lehman shared that while working for Newsweek, he wrote something like 125 articles without using "I."
For starters, let's all take the Johnny Carson challenge and see what happens.
Yesterday I rented a car and drove from New York City to Little Egg Harbor, NJ, to spend a day with my mother. It's roughly a two hour drive, depending on traffic leaving the city. The car is a compact and as basic as it gets (manual windows!) except for one thing: it has satellite radio, with a gazillion channels. I caught a fantastic interview with Greil Marcus about his new book, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, which I am now eager to read.
When his interview was over, I decided to play a game with myself. I would rotate the dial among the pop stations to see how many songs of my youth and adolescence I could sing along with from memory. I was pretty confident about Motown hits, the Stones, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, The Supremes ("Love child, never meant to be/ love child, take a look at me. But I'll always looooove you, I'll always lo-ove you hoo hoo") and certain songs that were popular before my time (Elvis, for example) but what surprised me was how quickly the one-hit wonders came back to me in a giddy rush. Like this one, from the canon of revenge songs(I apologize in advance if you get an ear worm):
Reading Amy Glynn Greacen's post yesterday about memorization reminded me of the pamphlet I picked up at a book sale a few years ago. If you went to public school in New York City during the first half of the last century, you were required to memorize poems if you wanted to advance to the next grade:
Here's the table of contents from 1925:
I bet that if you approach a public school educated Octogenarian, he or she wouldn't hesitate to recite Invictus or Sea Fever or some other verse. One of my cherished memories is of sitting in a Washington, D.C. restaurant with David's mom Anne Lehman, when she was inspired to recite, in her native German, a Schiller poem that she had learned as a girl, before her world was turned upside down by certain unfortunate events that forced her out of her childhood home in Vienna, 1939. David and I and the diners at the nearby tables were rapt and when she finished: applause.
When I was in the third grade, my friend Adina Bloch and I memorized Poe's "Annabel Lee" for show-and- tell. Years later (many years), after hearing Robert Pinsky lecture about the value of memorization, I made a sustained effort to memorize Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey and I got pretty far into it though I abandoned the project when the same lines kept tripping me up. Was there a psychological reason I wonder, for this resistance to certain words or lines?
One must make a commitment to memorize a beloved poem but to succeed means you will have it always, whenever you want or need, wherever you may be. If you were updating those public school memorization requirements, which poems would you include? Would you keep any of the poems from 1925?
If you do a "close" reading of the P&W methodology section you will see what shifting sand the ranking is based on (background on rankings is here). Most of what is in the methodology section would be more accurately placed in a separate section called "findings." This distinction is important because by keeping the findings separate from the discussion of methodology the reader knows that the findings are just one person's interpretation of the data.
Most of the statistics derive from a single number, 640, the number of would-be applicants who visited a blog and responded to a poll by completing forms. Most of what the author says are "demographics" are poll responses. The author does not provide demographics (such as age, gender, location, income, etc of the respondents).
The methodology says the responses are "votes" and that those programs receiving the most "votes" are the ones the respondents hold in highest esteem. Yet if you read elsewhere you learn that the "votes" are the programs to which respondents are applying; there may be no connection between which program one might hold in high esteem and those to which one individual is applying (eg. I may think Houston is the best but because I live and work and have family in NYC, it isn't practical for me so it's not on my list of programs I'll be applying to. I may believe that Cornell has the best program yet I know the liklihood of getting in is slim so I'm not applying- these scenarios aren't captured in the ranking). Respondents were not asked to reveal which programs they hold in highest esteem; they were asked to disclose to which programs they would apply.
Every time the author says, "it is reasonable to assume," know that it is also reasonable to assume something other that what follows. Such claims are not backed up with any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise.
Most of the programs ranked got fewer than half the number of "votes" than the top ranked program - there are many many ways to account for this gap and yet the only explanation given is that it reflects the "esteem" with which potential applicants hold the program but it could reflect many other possibilities.
A good deal of the "methodology" section is devoted to history of MFAs and to discrediting other polls - irrelevant in a discussion of methodology.
I could go on. The infelicities of the writing style are too numerous to mention. Strip away all of this filler and you see how little substance there is to the ranking.
And there is more: The author of the ranking methodology makes many unsupported claims. None of these claims have anything to do with the method used to gather data for the so-called ranking. Here are but three examples from among many (my comments in bold):
When programs are assessed by individuals already within the system, the natural result is that older programs—whatever their selectivity, financial resources, faculty resources, curriculum, pedagogy, or student outcomes—move to the top of the pack due to their profile advantage. Yet applicants report only limited interest in programs’ historical pedigrees, as pedigree itself is often considered a suspect quantity in the national literary arts community." (What is the basis for a sweeping statement about the national literary arts community's views of "pedigree"?)
Whereas scientific rankings (which require demographic data that is, in this case, unavailable both to independent researchers and national trade organizations) traditionally poll, at the state level, well less than a hundredth of one percent of their target population, and national polls typically sample well less than a thousandth of one percent, the sample size for the 2012 Poets & Writers Magazine rankings, in a nod to the necessarily unscientific nature of the polling, is between 2,000 and 20,000 times larger as a percentage of population. (Scientific polls use precise measures to identify and calculate sample size, which is why they don't have to rely on large numbers to get valid, replicable results. The sample here is unreliable because the pollster has no control over who has responded to the poll and because the pollster has known biases.)
In most instances, student scores are only lightly scrutinized (or simply ignored altogether) by the programs themselves, and instead reviewed—where they are reviewed—by individual universities’ Graduate Colleges, which often have minimum GRE-score requirements (typically very generous ones). Creative writing MFA applicants should not avoid the GRE General Test for fear of the Mathematics portion of the exam; even those programs that do give minor weight to standardized test scores in their admissions processes generally look only at applicants’ Verbal and Analytical Writing scores. (How does P&W know that applicants fear the mathematics portion of the GRE and how admissions offices value them?)
These inaccuracies, sweeping statements, and blatant falsehoods are buried in the excess verbiage that is characteristic of the author's writing. Strip the garbage away and you're left with . . . garbage.
Once again, Poets and Writers Magazine has published creative writing MFA/Phd program rankings that are based on a poll of would-be applicants to such programs who visit a blog. Clearly P&W doesn't let its ethics get in the way of perpetuating a scam to boost circulation. After three years of seeing these rankings gain traction, nearly 200 MFA/Phd-program teachers and administrators, led by Robert Pinsky, Leslie Epstein, and Erin Belieu, have lodged a protest, in the form of an open letter (reproduced here by Dan Nester) to P&W that cites many of the same reasons for objecting to the rankings that we have noted here, here, and here since they were first published in 2009.
Here are a few of my thoughts on this mess:
Poets & Writers has entrusted the task of the rankings to a blogger/poet who has no credentials as a research scientist and who is not disinterested in the outcome: For each year of the rankings he has been enrolled in one of the programs that is being ranked. This fact alone should disqualify him for the job.
In attempting to shore up its phony methodology, P&W wastes a lot of ink on why other rankings fall short. This is like saying my poem is good because yours is bad.
P&W is wrong to assert that a scientific ranking of MFA programs is not possible. A ranking is possible, though to construct it properly would require time, money, and commitment, resources that might be better spent elsewhere. The underlying data, if collected by a reputable research firm, under the auspices of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and with the cooperation of its members, could establish a ranking that would give MFA/Phd applicants valuable information to guide their decisions about graduate programs.
Many of the signatories to the open letter are affiliated with our most prestigious universities. To lend more depth and credibility to their criticism, they should ask a member of a social science research department to review the ranking methodology and comment on its soundness. A first-year graduate student could do this in an afternoon; the outcome would underscore the extent to which P& W is flouting its responsibility to its readers.
The MFA programs should immediately pull their advertisements from P&W. Why continue to support a publication that is so lacking in journalistic integrity?
Here in New York’s Finger Lakes, corn season arrives late and leaves early. If you're like me, when you spot the first ears at a farmers market or roadside stand, you go a little crazy. Even though I’m usually cooking for just my husband and myself, I tend to buy dozens of ears at a time. My favorite comes from Ed Fedorka (above, also known as "the corn dude"), of Rainbow Valley Ranch, because corn is all he sells. Ed is living proof in my experience that if you make just one thing, you’re going to strive for perfection (think Antonio Stradivari). When corn comes in, Ed’s table at Ithaca's farmer's market is strewn with his super sweet varieties ($5/dozen); later in the season, he adds corn for popping packaged in neat plastic bags shaped like hands.
This season’s first corn coincided with a string of brutally hot days, days so hot that to boil water to cook the corn in my usual way would have made our un-airconditioned kitchen uninhabitable. Instead, I soaked the ears, still in their husks, in the sink filled with water, and threw them on the covered grill for roughly 10 minutes. The corn took on the smoke from the hardwood charcoal and was delicious, no butter or salt required. Even so, we had five large ears left over from a meal that included grilled wild salmon (also in season), and a salad.
The next day, with the temperatures holding steady in the 90s, I decided use the corn for a cold soup, nothing fancy. I stripped the kernels into the blender, added the last of my garlic scapes along with salt and pepper and a fistful of fresh cilantro (stems and leaves). After liquefying the corn, I streamed in about a cup of water, enough to thin the contents to the consistency of a pancake batter, and strained everything through a mesh sieve. Once chilled, the resulting soup was the essence of corn, or as some might say, the flavor of Kansas in August.
Fresh corn always reminds me of this poem, by Elaine Equi:
I strip away
your pale kimono.
Your tousled hair too,
comes off in my hands
All ears and
tiny yellow teeth.
from Surface Tension (Coffee House Press, Sept 1989)
I've been slack in my letter writing because of work, which is, at the moment, attending to the sentences of others. I'm sweeping clean the muddiness of poor word choices and useless repetition, employing the foot soldiers of concise writing: grammar and punctuation. It's tedious, but I also kind of dig it. It's a lot easier to fix someone else's mistakes.
But when the work seems insurmountable, I think about what else I'd rather be doing, or, to put it another way, what might be my own kind of Ithaka, "...the island of them all" - something that I greatly desire and whose attainment is continually delayed. The promise of it keeps me going.
One of my Ithakas is riding my bicycle, a pearly white Raleigh that my husband gave me before we were married. I love it so much that I instantly named it Pegasus, and soon after bought a bike bell, which I mostly ring just to hear its thick trill. It is searing hot in South Florida at the moment, the norm in late July, but when I'm on my bicycle the temperatures seem less oppressive, as does everything else, and I get to fly around town smelling the ocean and checking out the poincianas and palms and the little green parrots that like to nest and screech in both. I feel like the me that was once a 10 year old, skinny-legged girl explorer. And I suppose she too is another kind of Ithaka.
What I'm getting at is that even though I haven't been writing you, I have still been reading and thinking. Books IV-VI are my favorites so far. I like how the mundane tasks of servants are described in painterly fashion:
And also here:
I also admire the simple, fairytale connotations of these books' titles, such as "Sweet Nymph and Open Sea," although I don't recall Kalypso being so accomodating in other prose versions I've read of this same story. Perhaps I'm mixing it up with The Iliad? Somehow I remember Kalypso as a dangerous and seductive foil, and when I came across these lines describing her lair, I could see how Odysseus might be lulled into contentment, if even for a short while.
Now I'm sitting here looking out the window, writing you, thinking about New Orleans and ignoring The Odyssey, and that poem by Donald Justice comes to mind, the one about how art casts its own light and how it can comfort us in our mortal, and thus temporary, sorrows.
Dear friends, just a reminder that we have an extraordinary evening of poetry lined-up for 12 July, 2011: Sir Christopher Ricks, one of the world's greatest living critics of English literature, and editor of the Oxford Book of English Poetry, and formed Oxford Professor of Poetry, will be reading his favourite poems and discussing them, as part of the Oxfam Bookfest, July 12, 7 pm, at 91 Marylebone High Street, London, W9. Tickets are £5 at the door, £3 concession. Be sure to reserve seats by Telephone ( 020 7487 3570) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
David posted a brief appreciation of Ricks here. This should be a fantastic evening.
"Cayuga Lake, Ithaca NY," watercolor by Nari Mistry
I am in receipt of your letter and will say I was pretty tickled when I saw the first mention of Ithaka in Homer's verse because I knew that you were reading it from your own Ithacan abode. I wrote "Stacey!" in the margins beside line 30 and then again alongside line 213:
Second, I don't know why I approached The Odyssey with such dread, as if reading it would be a chore, as if I were a rebellious eighth grader. It took a few pages to get used to the language and syntax, but overall this translation is rather plain spoken and easy to enter. I wonder how one would find Pope's rhymed couplets. In any event, Fitzgerald's version is completely engaging, so much so that I may even race ahead of schedule.
I like knowing the outcome from the very beginning and given the way it's going, have a feeling that this will be a page-turner. Such characters! Athena the "grey-eyed goddess" who can assume so many forms. Without checking I count three: a visitor, Mentor, a sea hawk. Surely I'm leaving something out. She likes a man with good manners and loves Ullyses. And Nestor is rich, with such great lines: "never have I seen the gods help any man / as openly as Athena did your father -- / well, as I say, if she cared for you that way, / there would be those to quit this marriage game." One of my favorite passages is in Book III when Nestor stops Athena and Telemakhos from returning to their ship and says, essentially, "What am I, chopped liver? You think I'm like some pauper who can't put you up for a night?"
So much more. The Dawn spreads out "her finger tips of rose," the sea is always wine-dark (though I love "time to ride home on the sea's broad back"). There's fashion (Athena's "ambrosial, golden" sandals) and much feasting and drinking. They sure love to fire up the grill and feed each other "crisped meat" doused in wine.
On to Books IV-VI.
I was honored to be one of two guests today on Linda Pelaccio's Heritage Radio Network program "A Taste of the Past." The show is broadcast live over the internet from a studio that adjoins Roberta's restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Linda is a culinary historian and if you click through the archives of her show you'll be amazed by the scope and depth of her knowledge -- plus, she has a really sexy radio voice. Today's program explored cooking with and collecting cast-iron cookware. We were joined by Joel Schiff, who has amassed a collection of roughly eight thousand pieces of cast-iron cookware (!!). We had a lot of fun, and when the show was over we repaired to Roberta's to share a couple of outstanding pizzas.
You can listen to today's program here.
Both my maternal and fraternal grandmothers were among the scores of eastern European immigrants who worked in sweatshops during the early part of the last century. My maternal grandmother, who in an afternoon could stitch up a fashionable dress out of remnants she bought in S. Klein's basement, told stories of the boss who turned back clocks to lengthen the work day and other cruelties she endured for mere pennies until conditions improved with the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. But before the ILGWU, there was . . . nothing. And because there was nothing, 146 mostly Jewish women aged 16-23 lost their lives when on March 25, 1911 they were trapped by a fire that swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at 29 Washington Place in New York City.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the fire, the Forward, the venerable nationally focused Jewish newspaper, has published a special section for its March 25 issue. The section features the first-ever translations of the Jewish Daily Forward’s original Yiddish coverage of the event, including the front page of March 25, 1911, the day of the fire, stories about the heroes of the fire, and Editor Abe Cahan’s editorials about the tragedy. Find the Forward's special section here.
The Forward also sponsored a poetry contest, and the English and Yiddish winning poems are published in the special issue. The winner of the English poem is Zackary Sholem Berger of Baltimore, Md, and the winner of the Yiddish section is Alec (“Leyzer”) Burko of New York City. Read the English winner here and the Yiddish winner here.
We'll post a full report soon but here's a taste of what you missed if you couldn't make it to Charles North's reading and interview last week at the New School. Fantastic!
Video by Stephanie Paterik.
I posted about Mack here a couple of weeks ago. At the time I knew he wasn't well but I was hopeful. His owner tells me that 11 is well beyond the usual for this breed. Still, as someone said to me after the previous post, these fellas do get under your skin. He's been gone from his usual spot for a couple of days now and I miss him horribly.
If you are within striking distance of New York City next Tuesday, February 8, you must mark what would have been Elizabeth Bishop's 100th birthday by attending this celebratory reading co-sponsored* by the Poetry Society of America under the leadership of Alice Quinn. In a recent correspondence with Alice, I asked her about the upcoming reading. Her replies make it clear why this is an event not to be missed:
When she died in 1979, she was a (if not the, which was often the case) favorite poet of a wide, wide range of distinguished contemporaries, from John Ashbery to Mark Strand, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Jean Valentine, Thom Gunn, Robert Pinsky, and scads more, I’m sure. Since those days, another several generations of poets have come along to express their deep admiration and pleasure in her work, and the list of poets reading at the event, which is taking place on her actual birthday, reflects the ever-widening readership she has.
There will be poets in their 30s like Gabriele Calvocoressi and Tracy K. Smith and mid-career poets like Elizabeth Alexander, Kimiko Hahn, and Vijay Seshadri and magisterial figures like John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Mark Strand, Jean Valentine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Marie Ponsot. So many of these poets down the years have been and are teachers, and Bishop's reputation has grown in classrooms all over the world. (Ed note: for a complete listing, go here.)
Additionally, she roved over the world and is not really identified with one American place, and her poems reflect her wide-open curiosity and receptivity. She was part of no clique, published most of her poems in The New Yorker, a magazine accessible to the general reader, where people interested in all the arts could keep up with her development. Also, her poems are so different from one another. That’s something she greatly admired about George Herbert—his invention of a form for each particular poem.
There’s a great transparency to the work and at the same time ever-beckoning mysteries. She seems inexhaustibly interesting artistically, and her life was dramatic in very touching ways, so the personal story is one we seem not to tire of mulling over.
SDH: What can aspiring poets learn from reading and hearing Bishop's poetry (and prose)?
AQ: One Art, the volume of her correspondence published many years ago, edited by Robert Giroux, and now this new volume of her correspondence with her New Yorker editors, reveal that she was a very dedicated, diligent worker from a young age. She read and memorized poems from age five or six, and the great essays written in her college days and reprinted in both the newly edited Prose, edited by Lloyd Schwartz and the Library of America volume, also edited by Lloyd—I’m thinking of the absolutely riveting essays, “Time’s Andromeda’s” and “Gerard Manley Hopkins: Notes on Timing in His Poetry”—make clear how passionately she thought about her art and the importance she placed on having ideas about poetry. (See her letter to Marianne Moore, Dec 5, 1936, when she was 25, about Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover,
“What strikes me as so wonderful about the whole book—because I dislike the way he occasionally makes blank verse moo—is that it is such a display of ideas at work—making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. That, it seems to me, is the way a poet should think.”
So with respect to aspiring poets, I think her large, thoughtful ambition for her poetry combined with an innate modesty of scale—an early masterpiece such as At the Fishhouses has, nonetheless, a homespun air—should make poets feel so entirely free to go about things in their own way provided they strive for a level of serious achievement, too. The great variety of her work is also testament to a poet making it new for herself over and over. Each poem presents a separate challenge and opportunity.
She is certain proof of what Dickinson wrote, “The brain is wider than the sky….”
SDH: What is it that you most respond to in Bishop?
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.